Fourth quarter. Fourth down. Playoffs. 49ers-Cowboys. Right on top of the star at Jerry's World.
Safety Jimmie Ward lined up over the slot receiver, but he could barely contain his excitement before the snap. Linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Azeez Al-Shaair joined a dominant 49ers defensive front at the line of scrimmage. Seven men in the box on 4th-and-11, there was no secret about what was to happen next: blitz.
Despite losing Nick Bosa to a first-half concussion, 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans spent most of Sunday afternoon sending four pass-rushers to pester Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. But in the biggest moment of the entertaining, rollicking Wild Card matchup at AT&T Stadium, Ryans brought the house.
Prescott backpedaled. The red jerseys swarmed. Prescott’s eyes scanned down field but the internal clock was ticking and tocking. Ward got a hand on him. Then Prescott threw a deep incompletion and the ball fell to the turf. Ryans’ gamble worked.
A few minutes later the No. 6-seeded 49ers were celebrating a scintillating 23-17 win over their longtime rival, the third-seeded Cowboys, to advance to the NFC Divisional round against the Green Bay Packers.
On a day when they lost Bosa for half the game and linebacker Fred Warner to a fourth-quarter ankle injury, San Francisco’s defense produced a monumental effort against the NFL’s top offense.
"It says so much about our guys all year," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "To lose two of our best players, captains and be able to protect a lead like that, too, when you're missing a middle linebacker and you're missing your best pass-rusher, the guys stepped it up in their place. I think you've seen guys do that the past couple months."
Dallas finished the regular season as the league’s highest-scoring offense, but Ryans kept a lid on it for most of the afternoon. The 49ers racked up five sacks, with Charles Omenihu leading the way with 1.5. Arik Armstead, D.J. Jones, Samson Ebukam and Kevin Givens also contributed to sack total for the d-line.
"We have a deep, deep unit," Armstead said. "I don't see it as 1s and 2s. When I'm out there with any of them, I feel comfortable. I feel that we can get it done. I love playing with this group. We're 10, 11 deep when we go out there."
The rush defense never wavered, allowing just 77 yards on 21 carries.
The Cowboys offense is littered with playmakers but they were all held in check Sunday night. Ezekiel Elliott? 31 yards. CeeDee Lamb? 21 yards. Prescott finished with 254 yards, a touchdown and a pick -- when K'Waun Williams pulled in a key interception with six minutes left. Amari Cooper hauled in six catches for 64 yards and a score, but the 49ers will take it.
Shanahan called it one of Ryans' finest performances of the season.
"DeMeco's been unbelievable all year," Shanahan said. "If you do anything consistently versus Dak, and their skillset and their schemes, they'll get after you. I thought DeMeco just did a perfect job of mixing it up and calling that zero [blitz] at the end on that fourth down was real cool, too."
They call it a zero blitz because there are no safeties over the top. Man-to-man coverage on the outside. Ryans took a huge risk when it mattered most.
The Minnesota Vikings reportedly requested an interview with Ryans for their head-coaching vacancy recently. The 37-year-old rising star certainly bolstered his resume Sunday.
The Cowboys were marching down the field to end the game but couldn’t get a play off as time expired with the ball at the 24-yard line. There was plenty of controversy, however, as the umpire moved the ball and the clock struck zeroes before the Cowboys could snap the ball.
It was a fitting finish to a memorable and wild game that was characteristic of the decades-long rivalry.
The Cowboys offense played on their heels for the first half, generating just 110 yards from scrimmage and seven points before the break. Dallas led the NFL in points (31.2 per game) and yards (407) per game during regular season but finished with just 307 total yards Sunday. Things seemed to open for them in the fourth quarter after 49ers cornerback Josh Norman fell asleep on a fake punt, but the shorthanded group held firm down the stretch. It marked only the third time all season the Cowboys were held under 20 points.
"I don't think anybody blinked an eye," Jones said. "Next man up. No change in mindset. Just fight for your brother."